A number of “articulate” parents have complained to the BBC about Teletubbies, a new programme for children aged two to five, which features brightly coloured little fat creatures who talk in gibberish.
If articulation is a sign of a good education and a reasonable measure of intelligence, it is surprising that these parents should have objected. For they, more than their ill-educated, dim counterparts, ought to know that television is trivial or it is nothing. The beef of the articulate is said to be that Teletubbies is insufficiently educational. The programme makers response is: if it’s education you want, go to school.
As Anne Wood, Teletubbies’ creative director, says: “We are not a school, we are an entertainment programme for young children. We have a responsibility to treat our audience with respect.”
Only one with a profound understanding of television could see so clearly that to use the medium to teach young children is to be disrespectful. To avoid giving offence, the BBC tested Teletubbies on seven focus groups. As a result, the programme is deliberately aimed at the youngest children in the age range. This approach, says writer and co-director Andrew Davenport, gives the audience the feeling that they know slightly more than the Tubbies because the Tubbies know nothing.
All of television is underpinned by this same principle. No viewers, however stupid or inadequate, could watch Esther Rantzen’s afternoon programme without the comforting feeling that they know more than the participants in the studio, who know nothing. Television patronises its audience at its peril. So well have programme makers absorbed this essential truth that the medium has become clinically adept at a simple-mindedness so cleverly and consistently sustained that we have all come to take it for granted.
Perhaps it was this careless presumption that led the complaining parents to underestimate the achievement of Teletubbies and, in so doing, patronise their own children. For what the programme makers have contrived is nothing less than the perfect induction to a lifetime’s pleasurable viewing.
The Teletubbies are colourful, dance around a lot, and are barely able to speak English. Once young viewers have absorbed these qualities – colour, movement, prattle – they will be equipped effortlessly to move on to adult programmes such as Noel’s House Party and the Nine o’Clock News.
The cleverest creation, however, is Po. Coloured red, she is the smallest of the Teletubbies and is “highly excitable”. Her special song means “quick, quick, quick” or “slow, slow, slow” in Cantonese, though this is not explained to the audience. In Po, the programme makers have achieved what was previously thought impossible – they have prepared a young, inexperienced audience for Ruby Wax. For sheer, brash vulgarity of the kind that makes a bowl of cold sick attractive by comparison, Miss Wax has no equal. Like Beaufort and Richter, she ought to have a scale named after her. Measured from one to ten, she would represent ten, and as a measure of her achievement, game triers such as the Duchess of York would warrant no more than two.
I had always assumed that nothing in life or art could have prepared anyone for Miss Wax. Like Cleopatra, age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety. She is every bit as cringe-making, as toe-curlingly awful, on the tenth encounter as she was at the first. Po conditions the infantile mind and anaesthetises it in advance of Miss Wax. For that alone, parents should be grateful.
Laa Laa is yellow and described as the “happiest, smiliest and second smallest of the Teletubbies”. Her favourite, indeed only, word is “nice”. In short, an inspired early glimpse of all that Anthea Turner has to offer.
Dipsy is the second largest, and green. He “sets himself apart a bit as he tries to be cool”. Words to his song are “bptum, bptum, bptum, bptum”. Jeremy Paxman.
Tinky Winky is purple, the “largest and gentlest” Teletubby. He “loves to dance and fall over”. His song goes “Tinky winky biddle biddle boddle”. This is the most daring, imaginative and subtle creation of all since it is a skilful evocation of a character who is seldom, if ever, actually seen on the screen – John Birt. And the song is a brilliantly contrived synopsis of every memorandum that has emanated from the office of the director-general.
So, although Teletubbies is avowedly non-didactic, it nevertheless has a significant, hidden educational agenda, or sub-text as the jargon has it. In these technological times, children will get by provided they are “computer and tele-literate”. Biddle biddle boddle may not seem much by today’s standards of communication, but in years to come it is likely to be sufficient for most day-to-day purposes.
Only when Teletubbies’ audience emerges from its nappies and waddles into the half-witted world of grown-up television will we know how successful the experiment has been. If by then the debate is still alive, these youngsters will be equipped to give us their view of the identity of Hughie Green’s secret love child, said to be one of the most famous women on British television. My money is still on Jenny Bond.